Policing in a Behaviour-Smart Place

I’ve made a rod for my own back in saying that my aim is to help develop ‘behaviour-smart places’, haven’t I? I really should start to flesh this out beyond the local government world.

This is my first attempt. A short, imperfectly formed vision of how a Police Service could become behaviour-smart. It is based on a few things that struck me during a recent workshop with staff from a police service and its Police and Crime Commissioner’s (PCC’s) office.

The big question, then: what would a behaviourally-smart police service look like in ten years’ time?

In a nutshell, at a strategic level, it would be serious about taking an evidence-based, behavioural approach to policy; and it would have developed practice drawing on insights from behavioural sciences.

The detail of this would depend on what the fundamentals of the service are. My starter for ten is that the societal value of a police service centres on social capital, on which it depends, and which it creates. Without ‘policing by consent’, we don’t, effectively, have a police service; and the loss of social capital creates unsustainable demand for a wide range of local services – in social care and health as much as in policing and the legal system.

So my hunch is that the evidence-based police service of the future will, first, identify the behaviours that underpin social capital and policing by consent – and those which undermine it. Second, it will have a detailed understanding of these, informed by data and observation. This list would be much more nuanced than whether or not a crime is being committed. It will develop models and metrics to identify and enumerate the impacts and outcomes of these behaviours, and related costs: what demand is created? If we were doing this today, we’d call it a ‘behavioural audit’, I think.

Third, it will have a culture of experimentation, employing design thinking, comfortable with failing quickly and randomised control trials (RCTs).

So far, so pie in the sky.

What could research, insight and engagement teams – and Chief Constable’s Offices – do now to start down this road? I’d suggest that they:

  • build the ability and confidence to research and discuss behaviours in a smart way, in particular:
  • – identifying the triggers and contexts that drive behaviour and suggesting ways of addressing them that draw on evidence from elsewhere; and
  • – starting to describe behaviours to officers in this way (while drawing less on, for example, qualitative evidence, in which people often post-rationalise their actions);
  • use insights from behavioural science in the short term to carry out experiments that, though they may not be fundamental to the service’s success, help build understanding of behavioural insights and their use within the service;
  • start to use some behavioural metrics based on observation (so, if you want to track behaviour on Bonfire Night, select a random sample of events, decide what the target (non-) behaviours are and how to identify and enumerate them – then report back and track over time. This should provide much better information than a survey to assess awareness of your campaign);
  • oh, and wean yourself off of communications work predicated on ‘educating the public’ or ‘changing people’s minds’. We don’t need to change people’s minds; we need to make our target behaviours easy and normal.

This leaves a lot of things unsaid and unconsidered; in particular, how to take place-based approaches with other parts of the local public service and other sectors. And how to phase out unproductive approaches. But I hope it’s a start.

I can see that things have moved on in the decade since I headed up MORI’s Crime & Policing research. But I don’t think that change is yet fast enough to cope with the need to manage demand and maintain/increase social capital in the face of growing inequality, unless the police service is able to reframe its approach to behaviour. We now know that people are much less in control of their actions than we would all like to think, so processes and communications which assume the discredited ‘rational actor model’ of behaviour have to be updated. I think I’m saying here that there is a chance we can do it strategically.